Getting Agents of Reason out there has been and is proving difficult but along the way I have met some really nice like-minded folk - Unusual Historicals is a group of writers with many different styles but who have been kind enough to take me on.
It might be an inherent need to control. It
might be an artifact of modern management systems. It might be the legacies of
the Enlightenment. Whatever its causal origins we have ended up being dominated
Weighed and tested we arrive at preschool
where we are put on a learning programme in which our progress is closely
measured against ‘standards’. Whoa betide us if at the precious age of 5 we
show no inclination to associate the ink stains in those things called books,
with particular sounds. If we don’t progress according to the mysterious rules
written by the experts we are quickly labeled with ‘special needs’ and given
With luck we guess the game according to
expectation and move into our first 12 years of constant measurement. Weekly
tests, termly reports, average scores all build to an estimation of performance
delivered by means of A stars or Cs. The abundance of numerical values measures
our personal worth and supports the expectations of what we should be and do
and think. Crucially the business of learning anything is given only in terms
of assessing it. It is not possible to just learn stuff, to think about it, to
explore it or challenge its foundations - what would be the point of that???
Beaten into submission we come to believe
that the whole point of the learning enterprise is to say the right things in
the right way and thereby establish that we have the right learning. The numbers
which certify our learning cannot lie. Drilled with the instrumentalist
discourse that establishes that the only point of doing anything is doing it
right where doing it right equates to getting the right score, learning
dissolves into assessment according to criteria with a numerical value.
Learning effectively is assessment which is
measurement. The means really has become the end.
Escaping the performance league tables we
buy a place at University where we might hope to really learn. We expect to
move from ‘schooling’ to expansive creative cutting edge thinking and rich
exploration of our world. Sadly though we find the same instrumentalist carry-on.
Feedback given exclusively in the interests of securing success in the next
assessment. Yet more criterion given in mark bands. The deep fear that if you
score anything less than a 2.1 the whole business has been an expensive waste
of time and it has been true all along – you really are not that bright!
The measurement game twists and turns and
entwines us in its formulas and outputs. As student-customers we measure the
quality of our student experience, the quality of the teaching, the speed and relevance
of the feedback in helping us to achieve guess what – the right score.
The constant requirement to measure
everything – every feature of our lives and particularly our learning – strangles
our thinking. Nothing is legitimate if it is not measured. But now we are in
strange times in which it is difficult if not impossible to see the way
forwards. Surely it is time to rethink what this business of learning really is
about. The relentless pursuit of top
scores by the best who can compete the most effectively may have been the right
guiding principle in the evolution of our culture in the past. But now we face
new challenges and a new reality – the oil is running out. Measuring ourselves
and making that measurement the statement of our worth doesn’t seem to offer
the solutions we need.
What about releasing ourselves from the
validation procedure of measurement? Maybe we should trust ourselves and each
other and most importantly, our young people, a little more?
The two most obvious reasons why education
is such a political football are firstly, that everybody is an expert on
education – one way or another we have all had one. Secondly, schools are one
of the few places where significant numbers of human beings regularly do
something together that really matters. Add public funding, the needs of the
economy and the fact that wealth reproduces wealth largely by means an unequal
education system, and you can see why the education card is played again and
again by those in power.
Education and more specifically schooling,
is a constant and very hot potato. There is rarely a day goes by when media
reports don’t reveal a new policy or concern that British values are going to the
dogs because of irresponsible teaching or lack of discipline. In government back
room planning meetings educational policy is one of the keys to obtaining and
keeping power. The current gang of politico top dogs, most of whom had a highly
privileged education, use the card repeatedly and brutally. Their most common
sports are ‘Teacher Bashing’ – there is nothing like having an ‘enemy within’, and
the fear inducing balloney of ‘falling standards’ – which of course justifies
their next education policy ‘reform’.
The political dimensions of education are
many layered and hold immense but subtle power over us largely because for most
of us the words politics and education don’t sit well together. We feel that
our children shouldn’t be subject to whatever political chess play is going on
in Whitehall. But ironically and perhaps paradoxically, it is precisely our
will to protect education from politics that plays into the hands of the
The core uncomfortable tension comes from
the fact that education is itself an intrinsically political business. It
nurtures careful thinking and insight – thinking which necessarily exposes
received assumptions and thereby challenges dogma and the authority of our
political masters. Learning is a political act because its aspiration is
towards freedom – freedom to think and act. As such it draws defensive
responses from those in power - seen most vividly in the innumerable instances
of teachers and scholars in nearly all cultures becoming the target of punitive
measures – measures specifically directed to stifle that aspiration to freedom.
At a more practical level of politics, education
serves to structure our society. It maintains the social order by instilling
the values of decency, competition and what counts as success and it
distributes life chances accordingly. Education exists in the social world and necessarily
reflects the way the world is. Here is the dilemma: in fact our world is an
unequal place, but the advertised mission of education is an egalitarian one –
it aspires to something it cannot deliver.
Given its political sensitivity it’s no
surprise that education is such an ideological arena and that the political
agendas that drive those ideologies are kept hidden. Performance management, target
setting and ridiculous levels of assessment ensure a thick layer of apolitical
discourse throughout the whole educational system. As a result political
understanding and the will to political action is trained out of our young
people. The egalitarian and democratic mission statements posted in school
entrances function as sanitized glossy sound bites rather than producing real
distributive equality. Abstract political understanding is entertained only
within strictly defined syllabi and students arrive at University tutored to
believe that learning is exclusively about hoop jumping the system and hard
wired against anything political..
I exaggerate to make the point – there are
lots very bright, politically astute and motivated young people around but the
general level of political awareness is subdued and especially so in respect of
the deeper functioning of schooling.
All the educators I know see their work in
terms of offering genuine benefit to those they teach. In the broadest terms,
their motivation is to help students develop, acquire skills, and contribute to
society. The educational project is a politically good one – its target is a
good life for everyone and is delivered under the authority of ‘equal
opportunities’. But it is because education is such a social good and so
central to our lives and our aspirations, that it is so politically important
and why Gove and the boys have it constantly in their sights.